LA PLUME — The lives of young people in Northeast Pennsylvania may soon improve significantly, thanks to the newly formed Keystone College Juvenile Justice Institute.
The new organization, founded and directed by Keystone criminal justice and psychology faculty members Stacey Wyland, Deborah Belknap and Marie Andreoli, will tackle juvenile justice issues from several perspectives. The common theme in all of the Institute’s activities is to offer programs and training aimed at reducing juvenile incarceration while strengthening community bonds.
The specific goals of the institute are threefold: to help children avoid involvement with the juvenile justice system, to offer alternatives for resolving cases of children already involved and to aid incarcerated juveniles in their return and successful reintegration into society.
One of the priorities of the Juvenile Justice Institute, which officially opened in the fall of 2018 in renovated headquarters in Harris Hall, is to offer mediation services for families, schools and juvenile courts, and to train school personnel in using peer mediation to resolve issues before they escalate. The Institute will also offer training in specific practices which have been shown to be highly successful in reducing conflicts and disciplinary problems in schools.
The institute created a program to help children deal with the trauma of parental incarceration, deportation and separation. The program will be piloted with a small group of students in the spring and offered to a larger population in September of 2019.
The institute already began assisting in resentencing proceedings for juveniles in Pennsylvania who have been sentenced to prison terms of life without parole. Those cases must be reviewed because the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Miller v. Alabama, ruled that automatically sentencing juveniles to life in prison, without considering the child’s life circumstances, is unconstitutional.
Resentencing proceedings in more than 400 cases are now underway in Pennsylvania. Dr. Belknap and Professor Wyland, assisted by Institute student interns, conduct extensive investigations into the backgrounds of juveniles previously sentenced to life in prison.
“Miller v. Alabama changed the landscape of juvenile sentencing throughout the nation. Our job is to collect all of the information necessary to help the courts reformulate more appropriate sentences for juvenile offenders, taking into account the seriousness of the crime, but also their potential for change and rehabilitation,” Wyland said. “This is an opportunity for our students to have hands-on involvement in important, real-world work, while saving counties money by offering pro bono services.”
Other goals are more preventative in nature. The Institute will work with local school districts, police departments, juvenile probation offices and other educational and law enforcement organizations to provide “trauma-informed” services.
“By recognizing that certain behaviors in young people may be rooted in trauma, it may be possible to address the problems before the behaviors escalate, possibly even into violence,” Belknap said. “Taking the right preventative steps can help make schools and communities safer, which is the ultimate goal.”
Keystone students will be involved in every aspect of the institute’s work. From developing programs, assisting in the mediation center, mentoring children and investigating cases for resentencing, there will be opportunities for student engagement.
“This will be a great learning experience for our criminal justice, psychology and social science majors, and any other Keystone student who wants to become involved in helping young people during stressful times in their lives,” Andreoli said.